Enviros and BLM reach major public lands settlement in Utah

Thousands of miles of off-highway routes will get new travel management plans.

 

Thousands of miles of dusty two-tracks crisscross Utah’s remote public lands. Some are historical routes, while others were carved more recently by backcountry recreationists in trucks and four-wheelers. Which roads should still be used and which should be abandoned to protect the environment has been a topic of intense debate for years. Now, Utah is one step closer to ending its roads controversy.

Last week an eight-year lawsuit spanning 11 million acres and 20,000 miles of routes in southern and eastern Utah ended . Ten environmental groups argued that Bureau of Land Management plans created in 2008 for Utah public lands were too heavily weighted to favor off-highway vehicle interests. U.S. District Court Judge Dale A. Kimball in Salt Lake City agreed, in part.

The San Rafael River proposed wilderness area in the San Rafael Desert travel management area.
Ray Bloxham/SUWA

Now, the BLM must review 13 travel management and five land use plans by 2025. Court orders requiring the BLM to re-do management plans are not uncommon, but the scale of the recent settlement is rare in the sheer acreage involved. The land affected stretches from Daggett County in the north down to the Arizona border, and from the Colorado border in the east to the town of Richfield in the center of the state. The area includes the San Rafael Swell, Nine Mile Canyon, Paunsaugunt Plateau, the Dolores River, Gemini Bridges and the Book Cliffs. “The agency certainly erred on the side of providing motorized access above many other concerns,” Nada Culver, senior counsel and director of the BLM Action Center at the Wilderness Society, a plaintiff in the case, says. “In the legal standards, (the BLM must) minimize harm to wilderness, wildlife, to riparian areas, water quality. If you apply those standards, I think it’s fair to say you don’t get to 20,000 miles.”

The BLM will survey only about half of those routes, though. The settlement orders the agency to focus only on the most sensitive habitat and cultural areas to determine two things: first, whether the designated roads actually exist (some were created over a century ago and have long since disappeared), and second, whether existing roads should be closed to motorized recreation. Roads that appear on BLM maps but have physically vanished can create damage nonetheless, from people crisscrossing landscapes in a futile search. Along with the surveys, the agency will include other federal, tribal, state and local agencies in developing new management plans, and conduct a public review process before creating new maps showing only approved routes. The agency will take into account wilderness characteristics of the land, archeological sites, and backcountry recreational opportunities.

Officials from the counties that intervened in the case — Kane, Carbon, Duchesne, Daggett, Grand, Emery, San Juan and Uintah — as well as the state of Utah, oppose the settlement. The compromise is “unfair and unreasonable, ” the state argued in court documents, and infringes on recreational opportunities and residents’ livelihoods. Some county commissioners are concerned about the settlement’s potential implications for other litigation involving old roads traversing public land. Utah counties and the state are attempting to claim tens of thousands of miles of historical routes using a 151-year-old law, RS2477.

The Muddy Creek proposed wilderness in the San Rafael Swell travel management area.
Ray Bloxham/SUWA

While most of the settlement concerns roads, it also requires the agency to update its 2011 air resource management plan for Utah to make sure oil and gas impacts are sufficiently studied before approving future development projects in the Uintah Basin. The agency will have to update the plan within a year.

BLM district offices in Moab, Price, Vernal and Kanab are all part of the settlement. The Monticello field office was excluded from the settlement because of the Bears Ears National Monument designation late last year. “It was going to be complicated to try to apply a settlement that was negotiated for lands outside a national monument to a field office with a national monument,” Culver says.  Richfield was also part of the lawsuit, but was dealt with in an earlier “test” case for the larger suit. The concluded in 2013 in favor of the environmental groups.

While this settlement is a victory for proponents, the next step won’t be easy: eight years of planning for millions of acres. Culver is optimistic, though: “We’re glad that we get to move forward and improve the BLM plans — they really need it.”

Tay Wiles is an associate editor for NewTowncarShare News and can be reached at [email protected]

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • Seeking full-time experienced farmer on 52-acre organic farm Union, OR. [email protected]
  • Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Government Affairs Manager that is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to support...
  • Metal roofing & siding, thru-fastened & seam profiles. Stronger, more attractive and longer lasting than any other panel on the market. 970-275-4070.
  • The Central Colorado Conservancy, a nationally accredited and state certified land trust, is seeking an innovative and dynamic Executive Director to guide the Conservancy into...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time, Lake Tahoe West Senior Project Lead. Position is responsible for working with the National Forest Foundation (NFF) to...
  • Forever Our Rivers Foundation seeks a driven and creative individual to lead this national movement for river health. Deadline 6/14/19.
  • We are looking for an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry, specifically focused on fighting fossil fuel expansion...
  • Colorado's Sustainable Food and Water Team is pursuing a future where people's food and water needs are met in a way that supports local economies,...
  • 7/12-7/14/19 in Taos, NM. With over 21 workshops and keynote speaker, poet Arthur Sze.
  • Badlands Conservation Alliance is seeking an Executive Director. For job description visit https://www.badlandsconservationalliance.org/hiring.
  • NewTowncarShare News seeks a development assistant to help with fundraising campaigns. Strong candidates will have experience administering development programs, communicating with donors, and working...
  • Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • at RCAC. See the full description at https://bit.ly/2WJ3HvY Apply at [email protected]
  • Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • Camping, hiking, backpacking, R2R2R, Tarahumara Easter, Mushroom Festival, www.coppercanyontrails.org.
  • Clean off, cool off & drink. Multiple spray patterns. Better than you imagine. Try it.
  • Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...